Seven years ago, not long after Jaap van Zweden was named music director of the New York Philharmonic, I listened to every commercial recording of him I could get my hands on to get a better sense of his conducting. I don’t exactly remember it as a pleasant experience, if I have to remember it at all, nor as one that flattered him very much.
Now that the new conductor of the Philharmonic has been appointed, it is Gustavo Dudamel’s turn.
This time around, the exercise is a different proposition, and thankfully not nearly as exciting. Sweden was hardly a household name when the Philharmonic Orchestra hired him, and even avid collectors could be excused if they didn’t know about his latest releases. Dudamel is a Hollywood star celebrity who has a long-term relationship with the Deutsche Grammophon label. On May 19, he will conduct Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in his first Philharmonic appearances since his appointment, which begins in 2026.
The Philharmonic has high hopes for the 42-year-old Dudamel, but probably didn’t hire him primarily to put agenda-setting Beethoven and Brahms on CDs, although he will make records anyway. It expects him to be a grander figure, a talisman who will make happy the jaded and enthusiastic audience that the orchestra has yet to enthuse.
His conducting has always been somewhat overshadowed by the blinding hype surrounding his vision of making music as a transformative social force. Claims that he is the “savior of classical music” are not as common as they once were, but other clichés have endured since he rose to fame in the mid-2000s: that musically he stands for heady exuberance or eternal youth, for example. He has yet to say, as he did to The New York Times in February, that he “isn’t a young conductor anymore.”
Dudamel himself has often suggested that he never was one. When he was 26, Bob Simon of “60 Minutes” asked if he was too young to be a conductor; he replied that he had been conducting since he was 12, adding that he still had a lot to learn. ‘I’m not that old. I’m 30,” he told critic Mark Swed in 2011. “But I feel old.” Similarly, many critics over the years have described Dudamel’s approach as that of a much older musician; Alex Ross of The New Yorker has recently suggested that “he was, in a way, too mature from the start”.
Perhaps that’s why it’s best to listen to Dudamel’s recordings, not only to hear a prodigy on the rise, but also what he soon became: a musician with a lot of experience who has access to much of his career to a star cast of mentors. , and has been working with the best orchestras in the world for almost two decades. On that basis, his discography should receive more support than is reasonably possible.
That’s not to say it’s bad. Most of Dudamel’s recordings are perfectly listenable, and some are impressive, such as his set of the Ives symphonies with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which he has conducted since 2009. all star energy; some of his readings are frankly rather determined. In general he comes across as a very capable musician, but one who has not yet acquired the sense of detail and the genius of imagination which characterizes a conductor as extraordinary.
IT’S DIFFICULT NOW to fully recall the overheated hysteria caused by Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela as they mamboed through the concert halls of Europe and North America in their yellow, red and blue jackets. I was still a teenager when I unsuspectingly attended their almost mythical concert at the London Proms in 2007; a grown adult snatched one of those coats from my hands as the players hurled them into the euphoric crowd. That same year, a critic called Dudamel and the Bolívars “the greatest show on Earth.”
El Sistema, the education program from which the Bolívars emerged, later found itself in the darkening of Venezuelan politics; it took the fatal shooting of a young violist from the program, Armando Cañizales, during protests, for Dudamel to publicly oppose the regime of President Nicolás Maduro in 2017. He remains the director of music for the Bolívars, who are aging their youth orchestra bill long ago , and last November he finally felt able to visit his homeland again after a long absence. In August he conducts the Bolívars at the Edinburgh Festival for the first time in six years. He sounds at his most free with this ensemble, which he calls ‘my family’, and their records together give a good basic sense of his musical personality.
The core of Dudamel’s ethos is a joy in making music, and nowhere is that more apparent than in ‘Fiesta’, his infectious recording of Latin American music. Early on, he thrived on heightening a score’s emotional content, which explains the tempo extremes that make his Tchaikovsky—one release of “Francesca da Rimini” and the Fifth Symphony, the other of Shakespearean fantasies—so exhilaratingly explosive when he finally gets to the fast stuff. He’s since moderated that trait, though a recent Los Angeles Philharmonic account of Dvorak’s “New World” symphony suggests he hasn’t completely given up.
Other elements of Dudamel’s style are present and correct. He likes to emphasize the melodic form of a work rather than its harmonic nature; a “Tristan” Prelude and Liebestod on a dubious Wagner collection is therefore beautiful, but weak. There is also a certain rhythmic airiness, an unwillingness to give rhythms a precise character. That means that a fiery “Spring Ritual” is not exactly barbaric, and the same problem weighs on the completely different repertoire of his New Year’s Concert 2017 with the Vienna Philharmonic, whose waltzes and polkas are often charming, but just as often leading. foot.
Much of this has to do with the sound Dudamel prefers, or at least grew up with. The Bolívars were a colossal orchestra, both a visual and a musical spectacle, and their tonal mass was blunt, overwhelming. No wonder their conductor prefers a full sound. That’s not necessarily a problem; what is is that his sound, as mics pick it up, can seem flat.
Sometimes it doesn’t really matter: there is a patient Bruckner Ninth who, despite his longueurs, is satisfied with the Gothenburg Symphony, where Dudamel was a trainee from 2007 to 2012 as chief conductor. But there is not enough tonal differentiation to enliven his Mussorgsky from Vienna or his Strauss with the Berlin Philharmonic, and the same issue creeps into some of his Mahler, including a Fifth Symphony with the Berliners that is more cautious and altogether less entertaining than the compelling Fifth, with an endearingly drawn-out Adagietto, which he and the Bolívars laid down in 2006. A third from Berlin is similar: lucid, but not much more.
Then there is Dudamel’s Beethoven. His first recording with the Bolívars combined an unstable Fifth with a driving, bracing Seventh that is still amazing to hear; alas, another “Eroica” is not; nor is a self-published cycle of the symphonies predating concerts in Venezuela in 2015. Slow and not quite steady, this is such a back-to-the-future Beethoven that it might have felt conservative two or three generations ago. I wouldn’t mind if more of those readings were like his satisfying Fourth, and had the formal security and dramatic tension that this aesthetic demands.
AS THE LOS ANGELES PHILHARMONIC indeed became “the most important orchestra in America” during Dudamel’s tenure there, as New York Times critic Zachary Woolfe wrote in 2017, that success was only partially audible on record. The bleak economic realities of the streaming era are such that even Dudamel, for all his fame, doesn’t get the chance to tinker with his interpretations in a studio, as previous generations of conductors could.
Nor has Dudamel been able to fully maintain the loyalty to new music that he and his players have shown throughout the performance. His recordings of Andrew Norman’s ‘Sustain’ and Thomas Adès’ Dante ballet are immensely valuable, although I have heard Adès conduct parts of his score more daringly. If nothing else, Dudamel’s discography in Los Angeles is significant as a testimony to his support for John Adams: in addition to groundbreaking accounts of “The Gospel According to the Other Mary” and “Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?”, there is a wonderfully spicy “Slonimsky’s Earbox.”
Caveat rightly regretted, there is still plenty to do here. Dudamel’s early years at the Walt Disney Concert Hall are well documented. Highlights include the exciting yet soft-focused Bartok “Concerto for Orchestra” from his January 2007 debut, and an ambitiously powerful Brahms Fourth that won a Grammy Award. However, most concert relays of the era are routine, and the uneven Mahler First from his 2009 inaugural gala is especially worth hearing as the basis for the improvement of his later Los Angeles Mahler recordings. The warm, compassionate 2012 Ninth could use a little more snap and bite, but a tightly controlled 2019 Eighth is effective.
What remains strange, however, is that records that should have been easy home runs are not. It took five years for Deutsche Grammophon to release Dudamel’s “Nutcracker” after concerts in 2013, and while it’s pleasant enough on a first listen, on a second it becomes clear why: rhythmic embarrassment, along with colors a few shades duller than fairytale bright . For every touching moment in Dudamel’s tribute to his friend John Williams in 2019, similar thoughts lurk. When Williams conducts the “Imperial March,” he can both frighten you with the fully operational military force of the Empire, as with the Berlin Philharmonic, and mock his vanity, as with the Vienna Philharmonic. Dudamel doesn’t comment on it at all.
It’s things like this that make you wonder. The New York Philharmonic has hailed Dudamel as the resurrected Leonard Bernstein, as the man who will return the orchestra to the status it has really enjoyed only occasionally in its history. But whatever Bernstein was, he was a distinguished conductor. Who knows? Maybe Dudamel can become one too. But he has work to do.